From prisoner to prime minister, Malaysia’s Anwar has had a long way to go to the top

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — More than two decades after his tragic ouster from government and imprisonment, Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim is finally having his day.

King Anwar named Malaysia’s 10th prime minister on Thursday, beating out a Malaysian nationalist leader to claim the top post after a divisive general election resulted in a hung parliament.

He became the prime minister to crown Anwar’s faltering political journey, from a former deputy prime minister whose dismissal and imprisonment in the 1990s led to massive street protests and a reform movement that became a major political force. It is a second victory for his reformist bloc, which won the 2018 elections but lost power after 22 months due to a power struggle that led to ongoing political turmoil.

Last Saturday’s elections, which were supposed to end the instability that has led to the appointment of three prime ministers since 2018, instead produced new uncertainty after no party won a clear mandate. Anwar’s multiracial Hope Alliance led with 82 seats, short of the 112 needed for a majority. Muhyiddin’s right-wing National Alliance won 73 seats, with its ally the Malaysian Islamic Party emerging as the largest single party with 49 seats.

Anwar emerged victorious after the smaller blocs agreed to support him in forming a national unity government. Still, he faces the daunting task of bridging racial divisions that deepened after Saturday’s election and reviving an economy reeling from soaring inflation and a currency that has fallen to its weakest point. Malays make up two-thirds of Malaysia’s 33 million people, which include large Chinese and Indian ethnic minorities.

Lee Soon Oh of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs said, “Anwar’s political struggle is on a similar level to Nelson Mandela (South Africa), both of whom went through many persecutions in the process of democratizing their countries. It is hoped that with Anwar in charge, this can be done.” It is for Malaysia to return to a more open and inclusive society and economy that will restore its prestige on the world stage.”

Anwar, 75, has been on the cusp of power twice.

An anxious young leader, Anwar founded an Islamist youth movement before being recruited into the then-ruling UMNO. He enjoyed an astonishing rise to become Deputy Prime Minister and Deputy Minister of Finance in the 1990s. He was groomed to take over from then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, but a bitter fallout over Malaysia’s response to the Asian economic crisis led to Anwar’s dismissal in September 1998, his detention without trial and then accusations of sodomy and corruption.

Tens of thousands took to the streets to protest Anwar’s treatment. When Anwar appeared in court nine days after his arrest – for assaulting him in custody by the then police chief – he quickly became a symbol of his new People’s Justice Party and its pledges of reform. He was sentenced to six years in prison for sodomy in 1999, and a year later another nine years for corruption, charges that Anwar said were a political plot by Mahathir to end his career. His case drew international criticism, with Amnesty International describing Anwar as a “prisoner of conscience”.

Anwar was released in 2004 after Malaysia’s Supreme Court overturned his sodomy conviction, a year after Mahathir stepped down as prime minister after 22 years in power.

But Anwar was imprisoned for a second time for sodomy in 2015 – in a case he said was aimed at crushing his winning coalition against the UMNO-led government. However, he did not give up.

From his prison cell, Anwar reconciled with Mahathir, who returned to politics with fury over a multibillion-dollar scandal involving state investment fund 1MDB. Their reunion led to the historic 2018 elections that saw the unexpected ouster of the UMNO-led coalition, which had led since Malaysia’s independence from Britain in 1957.

Mahathir became the world’s oldest leader at the age of 92 after the victory. Anwar was pardoned soon after and was to succeed Mahathir, but infighting led to the collapse of their government after only 22 months. The United Malays National Organization (UMNO) is back as part of a government at odds with Muhyiddin’s National Alliance bloc that includes a hardline Islamist ally.

However, the terse verdict by Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan led to great unrest as UMNO leaders were imprisoned or taken to court for graft. Former Prime Minister Najib Razak has been jailed in a case linked to the 1MDB saga. His wife, the current UMNO president and several party leaders are also fighting separate corruption charges.

Anwar campaigned on a multi-ethnic platform, promising to end racial and religious intolerance and bridge the billions of dollars lost due to entrenched corruption. He finally succeeded in his relentless task on Thursday after a long battle.

Leave a Comment